One of the first tasks for newly appointed Murray County Judicial Circuit Chief Magistrate L. Gale Buckner is finding out why a box of pending cases was left in the office of the former judge, who resigned under investigation.
Buckner, who was sworn into office Thursday in Chatsworth, Ga., said she is working with prosecutors to find out if she must redo the cases or dismiss them altogether based on how poorly some documents were kept.
Former Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran left office in August in the middle of a state and federal investigation into allegations that he solicited sex from a woman whose case he was set to hear and also that he pre-signed a stack of arrest warrants.
After he resigned, his female staff members filed a federal complaint that they were harassed at the office.
Cochran has denied the sexual allegations. He admitted to illegally signing warrants, but later his attorney said they weren't used.
Conasauga District Attorney Bert Poston said he is meeting with Buckner to look at the files that were left unattended at the office and to determine whether any laws have been broken.
Staff members said they were scared to touch the documents that Cochran left on his desk until officials decided who would take over his position.
"We didn't know what to do with them," said Judge Dwayne Hooper, who was interim chief magistrate until Buckner was appointed.
Cochran's attorney, Page Pate, declined to comment.
Buckner, a former head of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, said she has a plan to create transparency in the office and restore trust with the community. But first she must evaluate a county audit for the last year to see a complete picture of the court's condition.
"If I'm going to come in, I need to know what are the responsibilities on my watch," she said.
The magistrate's office has one full-time judge and two-part time judges who issue criminal warrants for the county, conduct trials for misdemeanors such as county ordinance violations and handle civil claims for $15,000 or less.
As part of her job, Buckner must create a system to manage the court's money. To install better checks and balances, she also wants to find an efficient method for monitoring the fines and fees received by the magistrate's office.
Community leaders say they have faith in Buckner's ability.
Murray County Sheriff Howard Ensley said he believes Buckner is the right person for the job. The sheriff's office also was wrapped up in the Cochran investigation because two officers were fired for lying to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about drug charges filed against Cochran's accuser, Angie Garmley. The charges were later dismissed, and Ensley said that after the problem was brought to him, he dealt with it.
McCracken Poston, attorney for Garmley and the three women in the magistrate's office who filed the harassment claims, said Buckner brings a higher level of standards and, as a woman, can restore faith with other women who were allegedly mistreated in the office.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...